Sarah Melton fell in love with basketball because she had to--there was no other choice. When you grow up in Indiana, that's what happens. In Indiana, there's basketball and...well, we're not really sure what else they have in Indiana because we've never been there. But we suspect it's miles upon miles of wheat and cornfields broken up by strategically placed basketball courts.
"Oh, come on, Indiana is great," says Melton, who became the Mavericks' PR director last year at the tender age of 27, making her the youngest person to hold that position in the NBA. "But you're either an Indiana fan or a Purdue fan. I grew up an Indiana fan, and my dad was a ref, so we always had basketball on the television. Always. I never missed an Indiana basketball game. Actually, this is a funny story. I went to Indiana [University]. Before I got there, I only missed one game, and it was in the first grade. My mom grounded me for not doing my science fair project, and she wouldn't let me watch the game. I'm a first-grade girl who can't watch basketball, but I'm really, really upset. The bummer about that was the game I missed was the game that Bobby Knight threw that chair across the court."
Luckily for her, she was conditioned at an early age--programmed to enjoy basketball but also to understand that strange things can happen. Chairs get thrown. Players bust your chops. Owners run out onto the court. That's basketball--at least it has been for Melton.
After college, she ended up with the Mavericks. Gregg Elkin, who worked as the sports information director at Indiana University, had moved to Dallas to head the Mavs' PR department. He had a job open for an assistant, and he offered it to Melton. She immediately jumped at it. But, after her first road trip, she wasn't sure if she had jumped in it.
"The first trip I went on was to Detroit," Melton recalls. "They had these old, almost high school-style, rickety locker rooms. They were very small. I thought I had enough experience to do the job, but I didn't really want to go in the locker room. I was like, 'This isn't for me.' But I just went in there and did my job.
"I have to be professional. And because of my age and my gender, I'm a minority in both in the NBA. I have to work that much harder to avoid the perception that I'm anything but a professional. The players test you. They say things. They'll comment on what I'm wearing or my boyfriend, but I don't let that bother me. I never have. I can't be the girl who dates the athletes. The job is too important to me. There are a lot of girls who work for teams who like the job but who want to date the players. So, yeah, I do have to work that much harder."
When Elkin left last year to become the PR director for the Texas Rangers, everyone just assumed that Melton would take over. And she did. She never even had to interview. Instead, Matt Fitzgerald, the senior vice president of marketing and communications, simply pulled her aside one day and told her the job was hers. But considering the NBA's history on gender equality, it wasn't a given that Melton would get the gig. Before Melton, there were only three other women serving in that capacity in the league. Today, there are five out of 30. And, at the time, Melton was the youngest person, male or female, to be an NBA PR director. She had a lot of history and politics working against her--all of which the Mavs, to their credit, ignored.
"There was never a question about using Sarah," owner Mark Cuban says. "Sarah has always done a great job. She relates well to everyone. She follows through and gets the job done. The moment I heard that Gregg was leaving, I promoted Sarah. I didn't care about her age, gender or anything other than her qualifications. It wasn't even a consideration. What's not to love about her?"
A year after becoming the boss, her job hasn't changed much. She still has to work with the players and the media and act as an intermediary between the two. But she's comfortable now, which is good for her and for those who might follow in her path.
"You know, I'm such a dreamer," Melton says. "I had predecessors. The three women that I know in PR were huge mentors for me. Knowing that they were doing what I always wanted to do gave me more motivation to work hard and get this job. It made me realize that it was possible. Now that I have the job, others will call me and ask me how I did things or how I got involved. Honestly, that's the greatest gift that I can have. That I can help these girls who want to do what I'm doing, that's the best thing. A girl from the Pacers who went on her first road trip last year, she called me first to ask me about my first trip. I was so happy to help her out. It kinda made me teary-eyed. "